Home / ACJ - All Other Items / ACJ sets up his 1st Studio & does his first sittings (Unpublished Memoir)_profdash [5]

Alfred Cheney Johnston sets up his 1st Studio & does his first sittings_profdash
by David for group historicalziegfeld Jul 22, 2011

The images below are from the 1917 Follies shoot that marks Johnston's emergence as a professional performing arts photographer with a credit. Perhaps the most informative single chapter of the unpublished memoir of Johnston, "I Never Wore Tights," is the account of Johnston's first studio. I have transcribed a portion of this narrative, taken from Chapter 2, here to supply an insight into Cheney's early days as a Follies photographer. I own one of the two ms copies of this memoir. David S. Shields


In 1917, Alfred Cheney Johnston had his own gaze fixed firmly upon his own future . . . . First, he must have a studio; a photographic studio where a skylight would provide enough light for taking pictures; and a roof—free to the grimy air above Manhattan Island—where he could expose his precious platinum printing paper, in contact with his glass plates, to the sun; thus impressing the images of his negatives upon the paper.

In 1917, when Cheney paid his first month’s rent for a third floor studio, 57 West 57th Street was a three-story building. The roof would have been flat, had it not been punctuated, at regular intervals, with the glass and slate-shingled A-frames of artists’ skylights.

Outside, up and down Sixth Avenue, the “El” added its persistent clatter to the surface traffic din. However, because Cheney selected a studio which face Fifty-Seventh Street, he was not only saved a great deal of the noise of the clattering “El” trains, but also the quite understandable curiosity which would undoubtedly have afflicted both trainmen and riders, had they been able to peer through his studio window.

All third-floor studios opened off a single long hallway. Beside the front stairway there was a small, casually attended elevator. It was often necessary for prospective passengers to invade the corner drugstore and persuade the pharmacist to abandon his prescriptions long enough to escort them upwards. Sometimes an impatient tenant would run the car to the third floor himself, leave it there; thus causing the pharmacist considerable additional anguish and stair-climbing. On the other hand, most of the third floor tenants were young. Two flights of stairs were not nearly so formidable a barrier as undoubtedly they would later become.

One of the conveniences of this thriving artistic warren was a back stairway which lead directly down—not up—to “The Alps,” a pleasantly unpretentious restaurant at the street level. “The Alps” was not only a [p 39] place where both tenants and models could enjoy each other, to an obligato of good food and drinks; it was not only a coffee house dedicated to the thrashing out—but never the solution of—the earth-shattering problems of love, and sex and religion and politics; but it was also a most convenient and obliging source of viands and potables which could be delivered directly to the third flour studio of anyone able to demonstrate sufficient solvency to pick up the tab. Thus this back staircase soon assumed the position of a two-way traffic artery between sustenance and art.

“Actually, it was the people on the second floor who suffered most,” Cheny records. In the first place, the “El” tracks were almost level with their windows. Thus those who lived on the Sixth Avenue side had little privacy unless their windows were closed and shades drawn. The second floor has been made into, and rented as, apartments; not artists’ apartments, but dwellings for respectable, home-loving people. People who not only work for a living, but who seemed obsessed with the quaint notion that there was a proper hour for everything—including retiring for the night.

Because the third-floor tenants neither believed in, nor practiced, such bourgeois virtues, there was usually a state of siege and civil war between the tenants of the two floors.

The third-floor hallway was wood. To quiet the nerves of the proper apartment dwellers on the second floor, the thoughtful landlord had laid a carpet along the center of this third floor hall. However, on too many occasions, when a third floor tenant was feeling flush enough to organize a party in his studio—topped off with food and drinks from ‘The Alps’—the festivities would be climaxed by what Cheney called a ‘carpet parade.’

Bursting irreverently from the studio where they had been feasting, and with all appropriate artistic dignity, the revelers would line up, single file, parade up and down the hallway, ‘one foot on the carpet, one foot on the floor,’ ‘It was Greenwich Village on Fifty-Seventh Street,’ Cheney explains.

As standard equipment, each third-floor studio apartment was equipped with a bathroom. Cheney’s first constructive move was, of course, to convent his bathroom into a darkroom. ‘There wasn’t much furniture in the place, and I couldn’t afford much more,’ he comments. ‘Fortunately there was one blank wall. I used that for my background. When I got around to it, I covered that wall with gold paper so that when I turned a mazda lamp on it, it glowed like a sunburst. Eventually I had a frame built, with black on one side and white on the other. It was on casters, so I could turn it around easily. I used the skyight as the main light for my pictures, with a single mazda light for ‘fill.’’

On his knees, because there was no other way, he dunked and re-dunked his glass plates in developer and fixing solution in the bath tub, flushed the solutions down the drain; afterwards used the tub to wash chemicals from his negatives, then his prints.

Outside, in his studio room, he worked for hours over his glass negatives at a retouching desk; while in the other studios along the hall, his fellow artists labored with pen and ink, brushes and modeling tools on Bristol board, drawing paper and clay.

The interchange of ideas between them all was free, uninhibited, sometimes verbally violent.

On the roof, above Cheney’s head, the pupils of a dancing school practiced their routines between the skylights. ‘To me, it was one of the great attractions of the place,’ Cheney explains. ‘All my platinum prints had to be made [p 41] up there on the roof, by daylight. Platinum paper is so darn slow, you have to expose it to daylight. Even an arc light isn’t strong enough to give you a good print without waiting forever. So I’d load up an armful of printing frames, lug them up onto the roof, prop them up against the skylights, sit down and enjoy t he dancing while I waited for the prints to be exposed.

“I learned a lot of ballet that first year. Not only did I make my proofs up there, but after Ziegfeld and I had selected the shots we wanted final prints of, I would drag the printing frames back onto that roof, expose the final prints there.”

In order to ‘set’ these final platinum prints, Cheney transferred his hot oxalic acid operations from mother’s kitchen in Mount Vernon to a gas plate in his new studio. He does not record what his fellow tenants thought of the hot oxalic acid fumes. Although he does admit that the ventilation on 57th Street was better than it had been in his mother’s kitchen.

When he first became a tenant on 57th Street, Cheney’s resources were sufficient ‘to pay a couple of months’ rent and buy himself a new camera.” With a determination to see an important job well done, he concluded he must have a good camera. After all, he had suddenly been commissioned to put his ideas of artistic photographs to the test. And so he journeyed downtown to Willoughby’s Camera Supply Store, a photographic house which was taken “somewhere around Wannamaker’s Department Store,” where Grover Whalen was still displaying his charm.

In 1917, camera stores were not the fascinating gimcrack supermarkets into which they have since developed. Being almost entirely frequented by professional photographers, the equipment they stocked was heavy, substantial, cumbersome. Nor was it displayed with the ingenuity of late drugstore merchandisers. Still cameras were larger, ponderous, made almost entirely of wood. So were plate holders, tripods. Because ‘wet’ plates were still much used, their cumbersome holders, with slated fronts, like roll front desks—were still stocked, as were the sensitizing tanks. Because both films and plates were colorblind, no one knew about, or bothered with filters. Exposure meters would have been a needless luxury, because most shutters boasted only one speed. The professional still exposed “by feel”: squeezed a rubber bulb for an instant, let it go. Film was strictly for amateurs; only recently had roll film first been spooled inside a protective paper backing so that a camera might be loaded with it outside a darkroom. Before that, paper ‘leaders,’ cemented to both ends of the film, had been the only means of protecting the film rolls from unwanted light.

Although the film of that day was flexible enough to be rolled, no base rigid enough to allow it to be used in large sheets had yet been produced. Consequently, for the professional, plates were standard. And many a fine negative ended up as a handful of jagged glass splinters on darkroom floors.

Cheney has never been quite sure whether, when he entered Willoughby’s that day, they ‘saw a sucker coming’; or whether his self-confident attitude was responsible for the photographic outfit he finally purchased. Certainly he bought a ‘real camera.’ It was large; it was impressive. It accommodated 11x14 inch glass plates. Eventually a 5x7 ‘reducing back’ allowed him to make negatives of this latter smaller size.

He began with glass plates and continued to be convinced that, for really fine work, glass plates were distinctly superior; also that they should be large enough to make retouching easy and allow the production of salon, or display, prints without using an enlarging camera. . . .

Professional cameras have never been sold ‘complete with lens.’ It has always been a matter of choice, discretion and pocketbook as to what lens the photographer will select. Cheney chose a 28-inch Steinheil, a lens which has remained with him as the camera, throughout the years.

“I’ve never forgotten the man who sold me this outfit,” Cheney says. “His name is Joe Dombroff. He was a slight, little fellow. As I remember it, the camera was bigger than he was. Afterwards, he became president of Willoughby’s. I don’t think I could have given him that much business, but I might have.”

“Anyhow, I got the camera, and some plate holders, and the lens, and some trays delivered by my studio, and I was in business.”

David S. Shields


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